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Muckleston Family History Group

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A Funny Job for a Fella
 
by Bill Mackleston
 
With a friend like you who needs enemies.

 

 

It was in 1943 that I decided Hitler had had his own way long enough and I applied to join the Royal Navy.

 

At the time I was in a reserved occupation (I was working for a firm making uniforms for the forces) and it took several months before I was allowed to enlist.

 

The day finally arrived and I packed my little case, waved goodbye to the family and took the train to Skegness where Billy Butlins camp had been taken over by the Navy as a centre for processing new recruits. Here we stayed for two weeks while we were medically examined, interviewed and kitted up.

 

During my interview I was asked what branch of the Navy I would like to be in if I was given the choice. When I replied that I would like to be a wireless telegraphist, like my friend Jim, I was told they had plenty of telegraphists but were short of sick berth attendants (the Navy's version of Male Nurses). I was a bit disappointed about this as I had visions of myself sitting in my little cabin tapping out a message to the rest of the world that we had just sunk the pride of the German Navy.

 

The Navy, however, had decided and I became a probationer sick berth attendant. From Skegness I went to another camp at Great Malvern where I learnt to salute, march and (sort of) row a lifeboat.

 

After this it was off to the naval hospital at Stonehouse, Plymouth to my basic training as a nurse, here I was to stay for some twelve weeks while they taught me the rudiments of first aid, nursing and how to dispense medicines.

 

When the three months were up, I was examined, made a full sick berth attendant and given my licence to kill?

 

I now envisaged getting a ship, but after 10 days leave, I was drafted to HMS Lochinvar, a minesweeper base at Granton just outside Edinburgh which had a small hospital of some 60 beds.

 

Life at Granton was fairly placid, most of the work at the hospital being routine surgery and dealing with accidents and illnesses aboard minesweepers, and treating those Navy personnel who went sick whilst on leave in and around Edinburgh.

 

Most of the excitement whilst I was at Granton was generated by "Accidental Annie", a wren who drove one of the hospital ambulances. She was young, attractive and a walking (or rather driving) disaster and it was my fate to be with her when she was most accident prone.

 

My first trip out with "Annie" was nearly my last. We had been detailed to collect a seaman from one of the minesweepers who was suspected of having appendicitis. All went well until we came to the entrance of the camp. As "Annie" was about to turn into the gateway the sentry told her to hang on as a tram was coming. The next thing I knew was that I was propelled across the ambulance and knocked myself out on the other side as the tram hit us, when I came to I was lying on the stretcher with my patient looking after me.

 

Another time when we were bringing back a patient she reversed at high speed and demolished the canopy and door of the hospital’s emergency department. After a third occasion when she went through the camp gates without waiting for them to be opened I grew as crafty as the rest of the hospital staff and was otherwise busily engaged when "Annie" was on ambulance duty.

 

All in all "Annie" put six ambulances out of commission for varying periods before leaving the Navy to have a baby.

 

I get the feeling now that "Annie's" career was the basis of several "Carry On" films.

 

Granton was a pleasant posting and when I finally got a ship I was sorry to leave.

 

 

Full of Eastern Promise.................

 

In the first chapter of the story we left our hero (me of course!) about to join a ship. This turned out to be a 3,000 ton L.S.T. (Landing Ship Tank) which I picked up at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast where she was built. The first two weeks of my time on board were spent on proving trials in (a very rough) Irish Sea where I continued the honourable Navy tradition of 6 meals a day (3 down 3 up!).

 

After the trials it was back to Scotland, where we loaded the tank space with lorries and ambulances and off we went.

 

The first part of our journey to the east was fairly uneventful with short stops at Gibraltar, Malta and Port Said. The first excitement came as we were driving through the Red Sea when we picked up the survivors of an Arab Dhow which had been accidently rammed and sunk during the previous night by an unidentified ship which failed to stop. We managed to pick up some 40 odd Arabs whom we landed at Port Said. Two or three of the survivors had been bitten by sharks and the captain of the Dhow had lost his 14 year old son to a shark attack.

 

Somewhere on the way to Port Said I had been bitten by an infected mosquito and on the journey across the Indian Ocean I developed Malaria. I was landed at Cochin in Southern India and taken to the local hospital where they gave me a hefty dose of an oily liquid which I later found out was castor oil. During the night there were ominous rumblings from my insides and I rang the bell for the nurse.

 

This turned out to be an Indian orderly whose English was very limited and who appeared not to understand that I needed a bedpan urgently. The patient in the next bed said "Lavvy down that corridor Johnny" and I ran for it (and made it!). I believe I still hold the record there for the 50 yard dash.

 

My ship which had continued on to Trincomalee in Ceylon picked me up again on a journey to Bombay and I resumed my career as dispenser of pills and potions to the crew.

 

For a couple of months we shuttled between Bombay and Ceylon ferrying various types of supplies and equipment until one night we ran into the tail end of a cyclone. The storm caused the ship to spring a leak and the ship started to list. We all put on our lifejackets but we wouldn't of stood a chance in the seas that were running. We finally made it to Trincomalee where we were repaired.

 

Whilst we were being made seaworthy again we were told we were being loaned to the Americans as part of their Pacific Fleet and found out that this entailed being upgraded to their levels of comfort. To our delight this meant that we were supplied with an ice cream and soft drinks bar, a laundry (heaven, no more washing clothes in buckets) and, best of all, American food. For the first time in years we ate tinned ham and tinned fruit and had real butter on our bread. We also had a free issue of 200 (American) cigarettes a week.

 

During all this time I was still plying my trade as a nurse, one reoccurring problem was an outbreak of tropical ringworm (highly infectious) which affected about three quarters of the crew. We treated by painting the infected areas of skin with a bright green liquid, twice a day, until the rash cleared. Since many of the ringworms were six or more inches across and covered most of the body the majority of the crew looked like "Mr Blobby" (English character - sorry those of you overseas)

 

By the time the ship had been repaired, and upgraded, the war was over and we were loaded up with drugs and food and sent to Singapore.

 

"Carry on Florence"

 

The war was over and, after almost a year in Singapore as a Headquarters and Supply ship, we returned home with everybody's lockers, and every available storage space, filled with cigarettes, tins of fruit and ham to be smuggled in to the UK for the folks back home.

 

When we called at Gibraltar on the last leg of our journey I got gloriously drunk and passed out and was carried ceremoniously back to the ship on the shoulders of six of my mates.

 

After being "demobbed" I had two months paid leave and my gratuity of about £150. A few days after returning home I took a walk down to the clothing factory where I used to work to see some of my old friends. While I was there I was told my old job had been held open for me and they would be happy to have me back. I thanked them but told them that, now having been bitten by the nursing bug, I had decided to become a trained nurse. (This is when my old foreman said "It's a funny job for a fella.") I then wrote to the matron of a local General Hospital and, after an interview, was accepted for training.

 

At this time, 1946, the numbers of men undergoing general nurse training was fairly small and were mostly ex-servicemen. Only a handful of hospitals in the country took men, my local hospital being one of them.

 

At the beginning of January 1947 I burned my boats and commenced training together with four other men and eight young ladies, a number (13) that was to prove unlucky as only seven of us completed our training.

 

As men in a female dominated profession, we were an object of curiosity to both patients and the female staff and were viewed with great suspicion by many of the older nurses. As ex members of the Forces we were considered to be naturally licentious and a bad influence on the chaste young female student nurses and not to be trusted within 50 yards of any woman. Accordingly we had our meals in a separate area and were not allowed to be resident in the Nurses Home. This was all the most annoying as my friends outside the hospital considered that any man who took up nursing must necessarily be gay!

 

We had only been in training for a few weeks, however, before we were accepted by the younger members of the nursing staff. Gradually, there was a pairing of some of the male and female students (severely frowned upon) and, with a curfew of 10pm in the nurses home the problem of getting the girls back to their rooms after a night out had to be solved.

 

During the first year as a student nurse I had a spell on night duty on one of the children's wards. Many of the children were very ill and I spent most of my first month nursing three children who had Poliomyelitis and were in "iron lungs" (wood actually!) I remember praying that there wouldn't be a power failure when I was on duty as there were only two of us on the ward most nights and there would be three machines to hand pump!

 

Night duty tended to put a crimp on romantic entanglements as, with severe staff shortages, we were often working six nights a week. My current girlfriend at that time was twelve months my senior, six inches shorter than me and could drink me under the table. After I came off night duty we started going out, and together with two other nursing couples spent three evenings a week going to the pub, cinema and the odd party. Now, as I have mentioned before all student nurses had to be in the nurses’ home by 10pm when the entrance door was locked. The girls were allowed one late pass per week (until 11pm) as we men could not of course be trusted we were non resident and could stay out all night if we wished. Accordingly if we wished to stay until the pubs closed and the parties finished we had to find a way to smuggle the girls into the nursing home, after 10pm, without detection.

 

We soon realised that one possible way in was via the nurse's sick bay on the ground floor of the nurse's home. This was a small six bedded room for staff suffering from (usually) minor illnesses. It didn't take long to arrange for the window to be left open by one of the nurse patients so that our girlfriends could get in undetected. This worked well for several months until, after climbing in at about 1am, one of the girls said to the sole occupant of the room "Thanks kid I'll do the same for you sometime", unfortunately the "kid" happened to be the Assistant Matron who was staying, temporarily, in the sick bay while her flat was being painted. It was back to the drawing board for a new way in!

 

As all ground floor windows were now locked every night we looked for ways to get through the windows on the next floor up. These were mainly student nurse bedrooms and they were usually happy to leave their windows open. To get the girls into one of the bedrooms one of us three fellows would shin up a drainpipe to the bedroom and lean out, grasp the hands of the girl the other two were pushing up from below and get her in that way followed by the others. This method was effective but ruinous to the girls stockings which were in short supply at the time. The girls decided to invest some of their clothes coupons in slacks and solved the problem that way.

 

This method of entry was effective for some six months until one night, after a particular merry party, we had got the second of the giggling girls half in and half out of the bedroom window when we were suddenly lit up by powerful torches and a loud male voice said "What's going on here?" the police had arrived! The sister in charge of the nurses home had been woken by the giggles (I said it was a very merry party) and thinking that we were burglars had called the police.

 

As it was the second time that we had been caught, the girls had their late passes withdrawn for three months. We men were severely reprimanded by the matron and all of us were warned that if it happened again our training would be discontinued.

For a while it looked as if parties were out for the girls. One day, however, my girlfriend was going on duty and happened to notice that some of a row of heavy concrete slabs leading to the nurses home had been removed and exposed an underground corridor, which we later discovered ran from a nearby ward to the basement of the nurses home. The corridor was about seven feet high and four foot wide and carried the electricity cables to the home. The door at the end of the corridor on the ward was never locked but the door to the basement in the home was, but we did find a key that fitted it. After that 'no problem'. Copies of the basement key were kept in a secret place on the ward and we were back in business again. Until the time I left the hospital some two years later the underground tunnel was still going strong.

 

During my training I worked on more than a dozen different wards together with periods in out placements and the operating theatre. People attending outpatients in those days were usually asked to bring with them a specimen of urine in a clean bottle (which the patient supplied themselves). One patient brought his sample in a HP sauce bottle which obviously hadn't been properly rinsed as the report on the specimen included the comment "and various oriental fruits and spices"! Another patient arrived by taxi with two big suitcases full of filled bottles. Instead of bringing a single sample he had saved all the urine he had passed since receiving the letter six weeks previously!

 

I thoroughly enjoyed my training as did most of the other male nurses. There were lots of what we felt were petty rules and a fair bit of our time was spent on trying to find ways to circumvent them. The Matron, Assistant Matron and Sisters were in the main good humoured and tolerant of us. Whenever we got up to something they would throw their hands up in the air and say "MEN"!

 

When she presented our hospital badges and certificates to us on completion of training the Matron said "On the bottom of the certificate it says 'for three years good conduct' if I had my way you men would have on yours 'for three years of undetected crime' "

 

It was fun though while it lasted.